The stock market, the bond market, the commodities markets (to a lesser extent), FX markets – they are all experiencing a marked increase in volatility.
Some observers want to call this bearish for equities, mainly because they already are bearish. This is a very bad reason. While really bad equity returns almost always occur coincident with a rise in volatility – the old maxim is that stocks go ‘up on the staircase and down on the escalator’ – that does not mean that volatility causes bad returns. Or, put another way, there are also periods of increased volatility that do not precede and are not coincident with bad returns.
However, there actually is a reason that increased volatility might lead to poor short- to medium-term returns, that isn’t based on technical analysis or spurious correlations. Moreover, a relatively new phenomenon (the rise of so-called ‘risk-parity’ strategies) is starting to institutionalize what was already a somewhat natural response to volatility.
In ‘risk-parity’ strategies, the weight of an asset class (or a security within an asset class, sometimes) is inversely proportional to the risk it adds to the portfolio. Generally speaking, “risk” here is defined as variance, because it is easy to estimate and there are markets where symmetrical variance trades – i.e., options markets. But what this means is that when volatility (sometimes realized volatility, and sometimes option “implied” volatility) rises in stocks, then risk parity strategies tend to be shedding equities because they look riskier, and vice-versa. Right now, risk parity strategies are likely to be overweight equities because of the long period of low realized and implied volatility (even though the valuation measures imply quite high risk in the sense most of us mean it, in terms of the probability of return shortfall). Risk parity strategies are probably superior to ‘return-chasing’ methodologies, but by being ‘risk-chasing’ they end up doing something fairly similar when they are all operating together.
Note that while risk-parity strategies are comparatively new – well, not exactly because it is an oldish idea, but they have only recently become a big fad – this general phenomenon is not. The natural response to greater equity market volatility is to pare back exposure; when your broker statement starts to swing around wildly it makes you nervous and so you may start to take some profits. This is also true of other asset classes but it seems to me to be especially true in equities. Nobody who gets involved in commodities is surprised at volatility: the asset class suffers from a midguided belief that it is terribly volatile even though commodity indices are just about exactly as volatile as equity indices over time. But equity investors, contrariwise, seem perennially surprised at 2% moves.
So, while the recent volatility doesn’t mean that a move lower in equities is assured, it increases the probability of such because risk-parity strategies (and other investors reacting nervously to overweights in their equity exposure) will begin to scale back positions in the asset class in favor of positions in other asset classes, probably mostly bonds and commodities. At this point it would be good for me to point out that only the very short-term volatility measures have moved up dramatically; the VIX is well off its bottom but only up to 18.8 and it has been there numerous times in the last few years (see chart, source Bloomberg). But the longer the volatility continues like we have seen it for the last week or two, the bigger the chances that the asset-allocation boxes start to make important shifts (and the quant hedge fund boxes will probably move a bit before those asset allocation boxes do).
As an aside, the tendency for asset allocation shifts to follow volatility shifts is not the reason that the VIX displays a strong inverse directionality. Neither is the main reason for this inverse directionality because the VIX is a “fear gauge.” The main reason is that the VIX weights near-the-money options more heavily than out-of-the-money options. Because options skews almost always imply more downside volatility for stocks than upside volatility, when the market declines it tends to bring more “high volatility” strikes into play and so part of the VIX increase in a down market is simply mechanical.
I am not calling for a sharp decline in stocks, nor for an extended decline in stocks. My position and view is as it has long been, that the prospect for attractive real returns from equities over the next 5-10 years is quite small and beaten handily by commodities’ prospective returns at that end of the risk spectrum. I don’t think that most investors (me included!) should swing asset allocations around frequently in response to technical indicators or such things as “momentum”, but rather should focus on evaluating expected long-term returns (which are somewhat predictable) and invest for value. And I must admit I also think that “risk-parity” is a clever marketing gimmick but a pretty absurd way to assemble a portfolio for almost everyone. My point here is to highlight one little-considered aspect of herd behavior, and how that herd behavior may have become more institutionalized as late, and to consider the risks that herd behavior may create.
 This in turn is not due so much from the tendency of markets to have more downside volatility than upside volatility, but from the fact that buying protective puts and selling “covered” calls are both considered “conservative” options strategies. So, out-of-the-money puts tend to be too expensive and out-of-the-money calls too rich.
The inflation market offers such wonderful opportunities for profit since so few people understand the dynamics of inflation, much less of the inflation market.
One of the things which continually fascinates me is how the inflation trade has become sort of a “risk on” kind of trade, in that when the market is pricing in better growth expectations, reflected in rising equity prices, inflation expectations move with the same rhythm. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the 10-year inflation breakeven rate versus the S&P 500 index. Note how closely they ebb and flow together, at least until the latest swoon in inflation expectations.
Your knee-jerk reaction might be that this is a spurious correlation caused by the fact that (a) bond yields tend to rise when growth expectations rise and (b) when bond yields rise, the components of bond yields – including both real rates and expected inflation – tend to rise. But look at the chart below (source: Bloomberg), covering the same period but this time charting stocks versus real yields.
If anything, real yields ought to be more correlated to movements in equities than inflation expectations, since presumably real economic growth is directly related to the real growth rates embedded in equity prices. But to my eyes at least, the correlation between real interest rates and equity prices, for which there is a plausible causal explanation, doesn’t look nearly as good as the relationship between stocks and inflation expectations.
It doesn’t make any sense that long-term inflation expectations should be so closely related to equity prices. I know I have mentioned before – in fact, regular readers are probably sick of me pointing it out – that there is no causal relationship between growth and inflation. Really, it is worse than that: one really needs to torture the data to find any connection at all, causal or not. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows quarterly real GDP in yellow against core inflation in white.
I’ve pointed out before that the big recession in ’08-09 saw almost no deceleration in core inflation (and none at all if you remove housing from core inflation), but it’s hard to find a connection anywhere. The next chart (source: Bloomberg) makes the point a different way, simply plotting core inflation (y-axis) against real GDP (x-axis) quarterly back to 1980.
In case anyone out there is protesting that there should be a lagged relationship between growth and inflation, I am happy to report that I was able to get an r-squared as higher as 0.257 with a lag of 12 quarters. Unfortunately, the lag goes the wrong way: high inflation precedes high growth, not vice-versa. And I don’t know anyone who proffers a reasonable explanation of a causality running in that direction. Lags the other way fail to produce any r-squared over 0.1.
So, how to explain the fact that since the end of August we have seen 10-year real rates rise 29 basis points while 10-year breakevens were falling 12bps (producing a net rise in nominal rates of only 17bps)? The explanation is simple: the market is wrong to treat breakevens as a “risk on/risk off” sort of trade. Breakevens have cheapened far too much. I don’t know if that means that TIPS yields have risen too much, or nominal yields have risen too little (I rather expect the former), but the difference is too narrow. The short end of the US curve (1 year inflation swaps are at 1.44%) implies either that core inflation will decline markedly from its already-depressed level well below median inflation, or that energy prices will decline sharply and much further than implied by gasoline futures.
I think that one of the reasons US inflation has been under pressure is that it is currently at a very large spread versus European inflation, and earlier this month it was at the highest level in at least a decade (see chart, source Enduring Investments).
This may look like an appealing short, perhaps, but based on our internal analysis and some historical relationships we track we actually believe the spread is too low by about 50bps. And think about it this way: if Europe really is in the process of inheriting Japan’s lost decade, then 10-year expectations for the US ought to be much, much higher than in Europe. I don’t really think Europe will end up there, because the ECB seems to be trying to do the right thing, but it is not unreasonable to think that there should be a hefty premium to US inflation over Europe.
 Of course, the correlation of levels won’t be very good because stocks have an upward bias over time while inflation expectations do not. To run the correlation, you’d have to de-trend stocks but I’m trying to make a visceral point here rather than a quantitative one.
Here is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy or (if you’re already following me on Twitter or seeing this elsewhere) subscribe to direct email of my free articles here.
- Complete shocker of a CPI figure. Core at +0.01%, barely needed any rounding to get to 0.0. Y/y falls to 1.73%. Awful.
- Zero chance the Fed does anything today, anyway. The doves just need to point to one number and they win.
- Stocks ought to LOVE this.
- Core services dropped to 2.5% y/y from 2.6% and core goods to -0.4% from -0.3%.
- Accelerating major groups: Food/bev. That’s all. 14.9% of basket. Everything else decelerating.
- I just don’t see, anecdotally, a sudden change in the pricing dynamics in the economy. That’s why this is shocking to me.
- Primary rents to 3.18% from 3.28%. Owners’ Equiv to 2.68% from 2.72%. Both in contravention of every indicator of market tightness.
- Apparel goes to 0.0% from +0.3% y/y. That’s where you can see a dollar effect, since apparel is mostly manufactured outside US.
- Airline fares -2.7% versus -0.2% y/y last month and +4.7% three months ago. It’s only 0.74% of the basket but big moves like that add up.
- Medical care: 2.09% versus 2.61% y/y. Now THAT is where the surprise comes in. Plunge in ‘hospital and related services.’ to 3.8% vs 5.5%.
- …we (and everyone else!) expect medical care to bounce back from the sequester-inspired break last year. I still think it will.
- core inflation ex-housing at 0.91% y/y, lowest since August 2004. Yes, one decade.
- core inflation ex-housing is now closer to deflation than during the deflation scare. In late 2010 it got to 1.08% y/y.
- Needless to say our inflation-angst indicator remains at really really low levels.
- Interestingly, the proportion of CPI subindices w y/y changes more than 2 std dev >0 (measuring broad deflation risk) still high at 38%.
- To sum up. Awful CPI nbr. Housing dip is temporary & will continue to keep core from declining much. Suspect a lot of this is one-off.
- …but I thought the same thing last month.
- Neil Diamond said some days are diamonds, some days are stones. If you run an inflation-focused investment mgr, this is a stone day.
- Interestingly, Median CPI was unchanged at 2.2% this month. I’d thought it fell too much last month so this makes sense.
I am still breathing heavily after this truly shocking number. This sort of inflation figure, outside of a crisis or post-crisis recovery, is essentially unprecedented. Lower prints happened once in 2010, once in 2008, three times in 2003, and once in 1999. But otherwise, basically not since the 1960s.
The really amazing figure is the core-ex-Housing number of 0.91% y/y. A chart of that (source: Enduring Investments) is below.
There are interesting similarities between the current situation and late 2003, which is the last time that ex-housing inflation flirted with deflation. Between late 2000 and June 2003, money velocity fell 11%, in concert with generally weakening money growth. Velocity fell primarily because of a sharp decline in interest rates from 6% on the 5y note to around 2.25%. The circumstances are similar now: 5y interest rates declined from around 5% to 0.5% from 2006 through mid-2013, accompanied by a 24% decline in money velocity. And voilá, we have weakness in core inflation ex-housing.
The important differences now, though, are twofold. The first is that the absolute levels of money velocity, and of interest rates, are much lower and very unlikely to fall much further – indeed, money velocity is lower than it “should” be for this level of interest rates. And the second is that there is an enormous supply of inert reserves in the system which will be difficult to remove once inflation begins to rise again. The Fed began to increase interest rates in 2004, which helped increase money velocity (and hence, inflation) while it also caused M2 growth to decline to below 4% y/y. Core inflation rose to 3%, but the Fed was basically in control. Today, however, the Fed has no direct control over the money supply because any reserves they remove will be drawn from the “excess” reserves held by banks. This will make it difficult to increase overnight rates except by fiat (and increasing them by setting a floor rate will merely cause money velocity to rise while having no effect on the money supply). So the ‘potential inflation energy’ is much higher than it was in 2003. As an aside, in 2004 I was quite vocal in my opinions that inflation was not about to run away on the upside, which is another key difference!
If you are a tactical inflation trader, today’s CPI figure should make you despise inflation-linked bonds for a few weeks. But they have already taken quite a drubbing this month, with 10-year breakevens falling from 2.27% to 2.08% as I type. It’s okay to watch them fall, tactically, especially if nominal bonds generally rally. But strategically, not much has changed about the inflationary backdrop. I don’t expect airline fares to continue to drop. I don’t expect Medical Care inflation, which has a strong upward bias due to base effects, to plunge further but to return to the 3%-4% range over the next 6-12 months. And Housing inflation slowed slightly this month but remains on course to continue to rise. So, if you are considering your inflation allocations, this is a good time to increase them while markets are dismissive of any possibility of higher prices.
Without a doubt, today’s number – especially following another weak CPI print last month – is a head-scratcher. But there aren’t a lot of downside inflation risks at the moment. Our forecast had been for core (or median) inflation to reach 2.6%-3.0% in 2014. I would say that core CPI isn’t going to get to that level this year with 4 prints left, and even median CPI (which is a better measure right now of the central tendency of inflation, thanks to the aforementioned base effects in medical care, and remained at 2.2% this month) is going to have a harder time reaching that target. I’d lower and narrow the target range for 2014 median inflation to 2.5%-2.8% based on today’s data.
While we wait for our Employment Report tomorrow, there is plenty of excitement overseas.
The dollar continued to strengthen today, with the dollar index reaching the highest level since the middle of last year (see chart, source Bloomberg).
As with the rest of the dollar’s strengthening move, it was really not any of our own doing. The dollar is simply, and I suspect very temporarily, the best house in a bad neighborhood right now. In the UK, the Scots are about to vote for independence, or not, but it will be a close vote regardless. In Japan, the Yen is weakening again as the Bank of Japan continues to ease and Kuroda continues to jawbone against his currency.
In Europe this morning, the ECB surprised many observers by cutting its benchmark rate to the low, low rate of just 5 basis points (0.05%), and lowered the deposit rate to -0.2%…meaning that if a bank wants to leave money sitting at the ECB, it is forced to pay the ECB to hold it. A negative deposit rate is akin to the Fed setting interest on excess reserves at a negative figure, something that makes great sense if the point of quantitative easing is to get money into the economy. In the Fed’s case, it turns out that the real point was to de-lever the banks forcibly, so it didn’t care that the reserves were sitting inert, but in the ECB’s case they would really like to see inflation higher (core inflation for the whole Eurozone is under 1%) so it is important that any increase in the balance sheet of the central bank is reflected in actual currency in circulation.
Right now, the negative deposit rate isn’t so important since the ECB holds negligible deposits. But the negative deposit rate was step one; step two is to gin up the quantitative easing again. ECB President Draghi had promised several months ago to do so with ‘targeted LTRO’, and today he delivered by saying that the ECB has decided to begin TLTRO in October. The ECB will “purchase a broad portfolio of simple and transparent securities” even though some observers have noted that there aren’t a lot of asset-backed securities in the market to buy (but trust Wall Street on this: if there is a buyer of a few hundred billion Euros’ worth of such securities, those securities will be issued. Wall Street isn’t good at everything, but they’re darn good at finding ways to satisfy a motivated, huge buyer. (See “subprime MBS”).
This is significant, as I said it was when Draghi first mentioned this back in June. It is significant if they follow through, and at least at this point it appears they mean to do so. Now, Europe still needs to fight against the dampening effect on money velocity that lower interest rates are having, but at least they recognize the need to get M2 money growth above the 2.7% y/y rate it is at presently (which is, itself, above the 1.9% rate of the year ended April). Money growth in Europe is currently the lowest in the world, and – surprise! – deflation is the biggest threat in Europe. Go figure.
How does this affect inflation in the US?
Changes in the global money supply contributes to a global inflation process that underpins inflation rates around the world. The best way to think about the fluctuations in exchange rates, with respect to inflation, is that they allocate global inflation between countries (or, alternatively, you can think of inflation as being “global” plus “idiosyncratic”, where a country’s idiosyncratic inflationary or disinflationary policies affect the domestic inflation rate and the exchange rate with other countries). So, the ECB’s aggressive easing (when it happens) will have two main effects. First, it will tend to push up average inflation globally compared to what it would otherwise have been. Second, it will tend to weaken the Euro and strengthen the dollar so that inflation in Europe should rise relative to US inflation – all else being equal, which of course it is not.
With respect to this latter effect, I need to take pains to point out that it is a small effect, or rather than the relative movements in the currency need to be a lot bigger to be worth worrying about. A stronger dollar, in short, is not going to put much pressure on US inflation to be lower. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments) shows a proxy we use for core commodities inflation, ex-medical, against the broad trade-weighted dollar lagged 9 months.
You can see that core commodities respond broadly to the dollar’s strength or weakness. A 5% rise (decline) in the dollar causes, nine months later, a 1% decline (rise) in core commodities inflation, ex-medical care commodities. Core ex-medical care commodities represents about 18% of the consumption basket, and the dollar’s effect outside of that part of the basket is indeterminate at best, so we can say that a 5% rise in the dollar causes inflation to decline about 0.18%.
In short, don’t waste a lot of time worrying that the 4% rise in the dollar this year will lead to deflation any time soon. Against that 18% of the consumption basket, we have 57% of the basket (core services) inflating at 2.6%, and over half of that consists of primary and owners’ equivalent rents, which are rising at 3.3% and 2.7% respectively and have a lot of upward momentum. Unless the dollar shoots dramatically higher, it should not affect overall prices very much.
Back to school! It is the beginning of September, post-Labor Day, and students everywhere are back to school.
It is the time of year when investors, too, tend to be schooled – as bond markets tend to strengthen and equity markets to weaken (relative to the overall drift). It doesn’t happen every year, but the tendency in fixed income markets is strong enough that, as a rule, I demand much stronger reasons to sell bonds in September and October than during the rest of the year.
This year, we appear to be in for a special treat. We all get to learn new acronyms, like ISIS, and Americans are learning where Ukraine is on a map of the world. What fun.
Monetary policymakers tend to be resistant to further lessons, since after all they have had so many years of book learning that, darn it, they should know enough by now! And yet – there is so much about economics and monetary policy that we just don’t know; so much that isn’t knowable; and so much that we know with great confidence but just isn’t so.
However, I have been delighted to find that recently, the subject of money velocity has been appearing more frequently in policy circles. To a monetarist, velocity is one of a very small handful of things that matter, and its absence from discussions among the learned has been a terrible sign that monetarism was not merely in retreat, but almost extinct. And yet, the predictions of monetarism have been borne out time and time again (that is, the actual predictions, not the idea that printing money causes economic growth – a prediction that presupposes a high degree of money illusion is at work), while the predictions of Keynesian economists have only worked once the parameters are revised post-hoc to fit the crisis. Increased money supply growth got Japan out of its deflationary spiral – as predicted. None of the Keynesian solutions deployed over the last two decades have worked, but the first attempt at serious money-printing worked. (Although it remains to be seen if the BOJ will keep its pedal to the metal; it certainly hasn’t yet “doubled the money supply” as it had pledged to do).
High money growth – that is, transactional money and not inert reserves – always accompanies high inflation. For a time, money growth may be offset by declining money velocity, but we also know quite a bit about what causes money velocity to move. Last year I cited a rare paper by a central banker (Samuel Reynard at the Swiss National Bank) that really had insight on these almost-forgotten tenets of monetarism. And this year, I am delighted to note that some economists at the St. Louis Fed have published a brief note entitled “What Does Money Velocity Tell Us about Low Inflation in the U.S.?” While the authors, Yi Wen and Maria Arias, mistakenly focus on the velocity of base money, and thus reach an incorrect conclusion that individuals are “hoarding” money (when it in fact is sitting in bank reserves, untouched), it is nevertheless the right topic and the right question, and that’s most of the battle.
I have previously shown the chart of interest rates and money velocity, so let me show it again.
This is important, because it’s the single biggest risk to a significant inflation accident. While the low vacancy rate and the rapid growth in housing prices will continue to push rents higher, bringing median and/or core inflation above 3% by early next year, we can live with 3%. The risk for much worse inflation is all tied to a rebound in monetary velocity. It bears repeating. From 2008 to 2013, money growth was rapid but declining money velocity (tied to interest rate declines, mainly) restrained inflation. If money growth remains at the same level but money velocity merely stabilizes, it is consistent with inflation of 3%-4%. But if money velocity reverses even a part of its post-crisis decline, then inflation could move appreciably higher. Since Q2 of 2008, the velocity of M2 has fallen at a 3.76% annualized rate; were that to reverse, with the same money supply growth, then the 3-4% inflation becomes 6.75%-7.75% inflation, which I think we would all agree is a bad thing.
Now, the unfortunate thing is that models of velocity that incorporate interest rates and certain other factors already indicate that money velocity should be rising. The chart below shows our proprietary model of money velocity; as you can see, since mid-2013 there has been a large and growing gap between what the model implies and where money velocity has actually been recorded. This might well mean that the model is wrong. But we should also take it as indicating the risk of a rise in velocity is real, whether it is a 1% or 2% rise per year, or a 15% snap-back over a shorter period of time.
As I always admonish, that’s a big picture concern, and not something to trade tomorrow. I would be gradually accumulating positions in inflation swaps, caps, breakevens, and broad commodity indices. There is time before people start to get really concerned. But to my mind, what is interesting is that the central bankers are now at least starting to reconsider velocity.
Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets today. You can follow me @inflation_guy.
- Weak cpi: 0.1%, core +0.1%. Unrounded core was +0.096, so it rounded UP to 0.1%. Y/y core stayed at 1.9% but just barely: 1.85%.
- That’s a real surprise since virtually all signs had been for higher core going forward. Breakdown will be interesting.
- Core svcs y/y slipped to 2.6%; core goods fell further to -0.3%. Leading indicators on both still point higher though.
- Accel major groups: Food/Bev, Housing (56.3%). Decel: Apparel, Transp, Recreation, Other (29%). Unch: Med Care, Educ/Comm (14.7%)
- Primary Rents 3.28% from 3.15%. OER 2.72% from 2.64%. No danger of inflation declining while these are rising strongly.
- Dramatic fall in airline fares: from 5.34% y/y to -0.25%.
- Airline fares are only 0.74% of the basket but that took 0.04% from headline and 0.05% from core.
- Big move in one item suggests median CPI won’t fall, though I haven’t yet done the math. In any event, number not as weak as I thought.
- Medicinal drugs 3.12% from 3.00%. Med equip/supplies 0.2% from -1.08%. Much of this is unwind of sequester effect last yr.
- Easy comparison next month means core will be back to 1.9% in August, chance of 2.0%. It needs to converge with median!
- I think Median CPI might actually accelerate today from 2.3%, based on my rough calculations.
The initial headline was a bit of a shock, as it looked very weak. But as I looked deeper into the numbers, it didn’t seem nearly as weak as I had first thought. To be sure, this is not a strong report, but the seeming weakness came largely from one component. The most-important components (and the ones with the most inertia) are the housing pieces, and those are moving strongly ahead.
When I did my calculations of the median CPI (I don’t do it the same way as the Cleveland Fed does it), I came up with a decent rise over last month’s figure. That is to say that most categories continue to see accelerating inflation. We will see if the Cleveland Fed agrees, but an uptick in the median CPI (which was 2.3%, unchanged, last month) would go a long way towards removing any sense that this was actually a weak figure.